Category Archives: Mark L. Movsesian

Yoga and the University

Not into Yoga

Not into Yoga (Photo: Ottawa Magazine)

Earlier this month, controversy broke out when a Canadian university canceled a beginners’ yoga class it had offered for years. The reason for the class cancellation at the University of Ottawa is a bit murky, but a student government representative evidently told the instructor that the class showed insufficient sensitivity to foreign cultures. Yoga, after all, comes from India—a country, the concerned student explained, that had suffered oppression and “cultural genocide” as a result of “colonialism and Western supremacy.” The yoga class could be perceived as a slight to Canadians of Indian ancestry and to Indian civilization, and had best be shut down.

Many conservative commentators expressed disbelief. Here’s another example, they complained, of political correctness gone crazy. What could possibly be wrong with a yoga class? It’s just stretching. Moreover, there’s nothing unusual about appropriating positive aspects of other cultures. Aren’t we all supposed to be multiculturalists now? A yoga class is a tribute to Indian culture. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Etc.

We have seen a number of silly episodes on college campuses this fall, and I appreciate that people have grown exasperated. But even a broken clock is right twice a day. In this case, it seems to me, the students who object to the University of Ottawa’s yoga class have a point – though perhaps not the one they think.

The problem is not that a yoga class wrongly appropriates a foreign culture. As critics of the university’s decision rightly point out, there’s nothing necessarily offensive in that. And there’s no indication that the teacher or students in this particular class did anything to mock Indian culture. I imagine most of the students didn’t think about yoga’s cultural roots at all. Probably some of them assumed yoga was a Western invention. American tourists in Italy frequently tell Italians that we invented pizza.

The problem is that yoga, in its essence, is a religious exercise. (In America, in fact, some groups have objected to public school yoga classes as violations of the Establishment Clause). For pious Hindus, yoga is not simply mindful stretching, but a form of worship, as much so as Christian prayer. It’s understandable, then, that many Hindus find it deeply offensive to treat yoga merely as part of a good exercise regime. Indeed, an organization called the Hindu American Foundation has started a campaign, “Take Back Yoga,” which seeks to end the commercialization of yoga and restore the tradition “as a lifelong practice dedicated to achieving moksha, or liberation/union with God.” Think of it as akin to keeping Christ in Christmas.

Of course, the fact that Hindus see yoga as a spiritual practice doesn’t mean that others must do so as well. In a pluralistic society, believers must learn to tolerate many things. Perhaps a Hindu has no more right to object to secular yoga classes than a Christian has to object to SantaCon. (Word to the wise: avoid New York City bars on December 12). To each his own. Still, to my mind, there is something very admirable about fighting to preserve an ancient religious tradition from commercialization, misappropriation and dilution – something very conservative, in fact. Maybe the University of Ottawa should just offer a calisthenics class.

Panel: “The Present & Future of Religious Freedom” (Chicago, Dec. 10)

The Lumen Christi Institute will host a panel, “The Present and Future of Religious Freedom,” on December 10 in Chicago:

Recent controversy over the HHS contraceptive mandate and the participation of faith-based organizations in federal grant programs has raised questions about religious freedom in the American legal and political systems. This discussion will consider the perceived conflict between civil rights and religious freedom and the roles of Congress, the judiciary, and administrative agencies for how religious freedom will be understood, applied, and protected in the future.

The panelists are Noel Francisco of Jones Day and Michael Moreland of Villanova Law School. Details are here.

Drakeman, “Why We Need the Humanities”

Congratulations to CLR Board member (and CLR Forum contributor) Don 9781137497468Drakeman, whose new book, Why We Need the Humanities: Life Science, Law and the Common Good (Palgrave Macmillan) appeared last month. Here’s a description:

This lively book explains why we need the humanities. It shows how society has long relied on humanities scholarship to address important public policy issues. Donald Drakeman, an entrepreneur and educator, builds a compelling case for the practical importance of the humanities in helping governments make decisions about controversial issues affecting our lives in fields as diverse as healthcare and civil liberties.

Bold, compelling, and accessibly written, Why We Need the Humanities sets out a fascinating case for the importance of humanities research in the modern world.

Don has already written a major book on originalism, Church, State and Original Intentwhich has drawn admiration from scholars across the world. His new work addresses a subject that could not be more timely. In fact, Don previewed the book in a post on CLR Forum a couple of months ago — which is to say, CLR Forum fans saw it here first. Now, go out and by it!

Conference on Christian Responses to Persecution (Rome, December 10-12)

A reminder that “Under Caesar’s Sword,” a joint research project of the Center for Civil and Human Rights at Notre Dame and the Berkeley Center at Georgetown, will hold a conference in Rome next month on the Christian responses to persecution:

The main objective of the conference is to introduce the results of the world’s first systematic global investigation into the responses of Christian communities to the violation of their religious freedom. The scope of Under Caesar’s Sword extends to some 100 beleaguered Christian communities in around 30 countries….

The conference will feature plenary speakers from among the world’s most respected advocates of religious freedom. It will offer a lively discussion of the global persecution of Christians among church leaders, government officials, scholars, human rights activists, representatives of world religions, students, and the interested public. Finally, the conference will shed light on the experiences of millions of Christians worldwide whose religious freedom is severely violated.

Details about the conference, co-sponsored by the Community of Sant’Egidio in Rome, are here.



L-R: DeGirolami, Sullivan, Movsesian

Thanks again to Rick Garnett, Phillip Munoz, and the hardworking staff at the Notre Dame Law Review for hosting us at the conference on religious liberty last week. It was a wonderful event — substantive, friendly, and engaging. We’ll link to the video when it’s available. Papers will eventually appear in a forthcoming issue of the Law Review. Meanwhile, here’s a shot of three happy CLR types, Marc DeGirolami, Judge Richard Sullivan, and me, just before our panel on religion in the modern world.

Slighting Syria’s Christians

Take a look at the photo above, which appeared recently on Instagram. It’s the photo of a page from the New Testament — Acts 25, which recounts St. Paul’s trial before Festus. The page, seared into a bookshelf, is all that remains of the Bible that once contained it. ISIS recently burned the Bible, along with the Armenian Orthodox Church that held it, in Tal Abyad, Syria. The page is written in Armenian characters, but in the Turkish language, which suggests the Bible was once the possession of refugees from the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Survivors of that Genocide founded the town of Tal Abyad 100 years ag0.

I thought of this photograph while reading Nina Shea’s searing assessment, in yesterday’s National Review Online, of the US’s treatment of Syrian Christian refugees. In the past five years of the Syrian civil war, she writes, the United States has admitted a grand total of 53 Christian refugees from Syria. Fifty-three! When one considers that at the start of the conflict Christians made up 10% of the country’s population of 23 million, and that ISIS and other Islamist groups have made Christians special targets, the minuscule number of Christian refugees the US has admitted is truly shocking.

Shea says there are two explanations. First, the US has generally been reluctant to admit any refugees from Syria. Second, the US relies on the UN to process and refer applications for asylum from its own refugee and resettlement camps. But Christians and other religious minorities are reluctant to use the UN camps, which are infiltrated by ISIS operatives:

Like Iraqi Christians who opt for church-run camps over better-serviced U.N. ones, Syrian minorities fear hostility from majority groups inside the latter. According to British media, a terrorist defector asserted that militants enter U.N. camps to assassinate and kidnap Christians. An American Christian aid group reported that the U.N. camps are “dangerous” places where ISIS, militias, and gangs traffic in women and threaten men who refuse to swear allegiance to the caliphate. Such intimidation is also reportedly evident in migrant camps in Europe, leading the German police union to recommend separate shelters for Christian and Muslim migrant groups.

There are other explanations as well. The Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration before it, is reluctant to appear too solicitous of Christian refugees. The concern is that singling out Christians would cause our allies in the region to view our humanitarian efforts as sectarian. We should get over this concern. Our allies view us as sectarian, anyway. And it’s not like our strategy of projecting even-handedness has won us much support till now.

This is a complicated situation. Many Christian leaders do not want their flocks to leave their homes in Syria, where Christians have lived for many centuries. And other religious minorities are also dying in Syria, as well as Muslims. But, for many Christians, escape to the West is the only viable option. And Christians have suffered disproportionately in Syria and deserve more help from the US than they are receiving. Shea’s piece is worth reading in its entirety. You can find it here.

CLR Faculty at Notre Dame This Week

Later this week, Marc DeGirolami and I will be presenting papers at a symposium at Notre Dame University. The symposium, sponsored by the Notre Dame Law Review, commemorates the 50th anniversary of Dignitatis Humanae, Vatican II’s declaration on religious liberty:

The Symposium will begin with an address from Bishop Daniel E. Flores on Thursday, November 5. Bishop Flores currently serves as the Bishop of Brownsville, Texas.

The Symposium panelists will present their works on Friday, November 6.  Panelists include Professors Thomas Berg of the University of St. Thomas School of Law, Paul Horwitz of the University of Alabama School of Law, Christopher Lund of Wayne State University Law School, Mark Movsesian and Marc DeGirolami of St. John’s University School of Law, Brett Scharffs of Brigham Young University Law School, Steven Smith of the University of San Diego School of Law, Anna Su of the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, and Richard Garnett and Phillip Muñoz of Notre Dame Law School.  The panels will be moderated by Judge Richard Sullivan of the Southern District of New York.

The Symposium will feature a keynote address from John H. Garvey, President of The Catholic University of America.

Papers will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Notre Dame Law Review. Details about the symposium are here. CLR Forum readers, please stop by and say hello!

Event Tonight: Religious Liberty and the Supreme Court

Just a reminder that the Center will host a panel discussion in midtown Manhattan tonight on religious liberty at the US Supreme Court. The discussants will be myself and Judge Richard Sullivan of the Southern District of New York. Details and RSVP info are here. CLR Forum readers, please stop by and say hello!

Huleatt on Obergefell

John Huleatt, an alumnus of St. John’s Law School and General Counsel for the Bruderhof Community, a Christian group with roots in the Anabaptist tradition, has posted an interesting reflection on the Obergefell decision and the implications for religious liberty. Here’s a sample:

Accordingly, the state exceeds its legitimate authority when it lends its authoritarian power to either side in this debate. Protecting gays from discrimination in nonreligious matters is an appropriate concern for government and believers alike. But if the government requires believers to act in violation of their conscience in the name of so-called anti-discrimination, it is going too far. The United States, more than most other countries, has a long history of successfully accommodating competing rights. For this to continue, the state and proponents of gay marriage need to understand that no compromise for believers is possible where conscience is at stake. Thus free exercise of religion must be protected just as much as other civil rights. Religious dissent does not lose protection merely by being labeled discrimination. If the American public and the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of our government fail to recognize this, many people who are (in Justice Kennedy’s words) “reasonable and sincere” will have no choice but to resort to civil disobedience.

You can read Huleatt’s essay here.

Morgan Stanley Announces New “Catholic” Investment Program

As a non-Catholic, I’m always a little reluctant to wade into these issues, but this time I can’t help it. Last week, Morgan Stanley introduced a new program aimed at clients who seek to invest in a way consistent with Catholic values. Apparently, Morgan Stanley believes “the Catholic values space”– there’s a phrase — is a growth market for investment firms. Here is a description of the new program’s goals from ThinkAdvisor, a website for financial advisors:

The company’s Catholic-values program can assist investors who want to invest in firms that support affordable housing, high environmental standards and other constructive policies, according to a press release: “It also provides guidance to investors who seek to avoid companies that engage in discrimination, predatory lending or other activities inconsistent with Catholic values.”

Well, these are certainly praiseworthy values, consistent with Catholic faith. But there’s nothing particularly Catholic about them. If someone told you these were the goals of a new Secular Humanist investment program, it wouldn’t be in the least surprising. And values that would seem distinctively Catholic (though other great religious traditions share them as well) are not on the list. No reference to investing in firms with committed Christian CEOs, for example, or firms with pro-life policies, or firms that promote traditional marriage. Surely such firms are out there, and would be of interest to many Catholic investors.

So here’s my question. Does this rather silly attempt to convert mainstream liberal values into Catholic commitments represent a cynical marketing strategy? Or does it reflect a basic confusion, on the part of Catholics and others, about the distinctive elements of the Catholic faith?